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New Books To Read Aloud

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My colleagues often ask me, "How do you decide which kids' books are the best?'' Good question. I'm a pushover for good illustration and prose. Unfortunately, of the more than 2,000 children's books I read each year, I find that far too many are disappointing in one or both of these areas. The great ones, however, I remember, reread, and sometimes even dream about.

Still, a book does not really succeed unless it works for its intended audience--children. The students at my K-5 school are more than happy to act as my guinea pigs. I read aloud to them, talk with them about books, and solicit their reactions. Here, then, are the 25 titles that have generated the most favorable reviews from my guinea pigs--and from me--over the past year.

Chris Raschka's Caldecott Honor-winning Yo! Yes? (Orchard, $14.95; grades preK-3) is an upbeat and innovative 34-word two-character study. A self-assured African-American boy offers friendship to a white boy, who is insecure and withdrawn. The story is told entirely through exclamatory dialogue and body language depicted through watercolor and smudgy charcoal illustrations. When two of my 4th grade boys read this book, they identified with it so strongly that instead of simply reading it aloud to 1st graders as planned, they spontaneously acted it out.

Appointment (Green Tiger Press, $16; 5-10), by Alan Benjamin, with illustrations by Roger Essley, is a dark and mystical retelling of a W. Somerset Maugham story. When Death, disguised as an old crone, beckons to Abdullah, the faithful servant begs his master to lend him a horse so he can ride to Samarra and escape his fate. The master seeks out the old woman to find out why she stared so threateningly at Abdullah. "It was more a look of surprise,'' she replies. "I was taken aback to see him here in Baghdad. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight...in Samarra.''

A story for the post-Chernobyl generation, Karen Hesse's Phoenix Rising (Henry Holt, $15.95; 5-9) is the startling and affecting story of a girl named Nyle, whose grandmother takes in a woman and her 15-year-old son, Ezra, who is dying as a result of an accident at a nearby nuclear power plant. Years ago, Nyle experienced a personal tragedy that has left her wary of caring for strangers. By helping Ezra, Nyle gains a renewed sense of purpose in her life. The book is her mindful and riveting first-person account.

In her groundbreaking picture book Smoky Night (Harcourt Brace, $14.95; 1-4), Eve Bunting tackles the subject of the Los Angeles riots, making it comprehensible for children. After watching the looting from the window of his apartment, young Daniel and his mother must evacuate their now-smoldering building without their cat, Jasmine. Ms. Kim, a neighbor and owner of a now-looted market, is also missing her cat. A firefighter rescues the two bedraggled cats, formerly rivals. The rescue serves as a metaphor for how people might overcome their distrust and learn to coexist peacefully. David Diaz's gritty and stunning Rouault-like paintings, superimposed on a background of found-material collages, make an equally strong statement.

Author and illustrator Patricia Polacco drew on her own family history to write Pink and Say (Philomel, $15.95; 3-6), a searing and unforgettable Civil War story about a black soldier named Pinkus (Pink) Aylee who rescues wounded white soldier Sheldon (Say) Curtis. Soon after Pink's mother nurses Say back to health, she is killed by marauders. When the two grieving friends set out to rejoin their units, they are captured by Confederate soldiers and sent to Andersonville prison. One survives, one doesn't. This picture book provides a devastating introduction to the Civil War and is guaranteed to bring listeners to tears.

Also based on a true incident, War Game (Arcade, $16.95; 4-12), by Michael Foreman, follows four English lads from the same village who ship out in 1914 for the horrors of the French trenches. On Christmas Day, the German and British soldiers spontaneously meet in the middle of no man's land to shake hands, bury their dead, and play an informal game of soccer before the carnage begins again. The bright but somber watercolors and the black-and-white reproductions of period posters evoke the times.

War erupts between the squirrels of Upper Forest and the humans of Lower Forest in Janet Taylor's Lisle's Forest (Orchard, $15.95; 5-8). Peace-loving squirrels Woodbine and Brown Nut and 12-year-old runaway Amber inadvertently set off the conflict, so they must find a peaceful way to resolve it. This fantasy would be a good starting point for a discussion about war and civil disobedience.

The Oxboy (Knopf, $13; 4-8), by Anne Mazeris, is a stark and compelling allegory that will stimulate discussion about discrimination and oppression. In a society built on prejudice and fear that excludes all but certified purebred humans, the narrator must hide the fact that his absent father is an ox.

Children who love the nonsense verse of Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein will relish Bing Bang Boing (Harcourt Brace, $15.95; 1-6), Douglas Florian's fat collection of short and punchy poems. Thick-lined pen-and-ink drawings accompany the poems, which are heavy on sharp-witted wordplay and sage observations, such as: "First things first. / Last things last. / Hours pass slowly. / Years pass fast.''

Eric Kimmel's tongue-in-cheek Anansi and the Talking Melon (Holiday House, $15.95; preK-2), illustrated with bright and enticing watercolors by Janet Stevens, is a good-humored retelling of an African trickster tale. Using a thorn to bore a hole in the rind of a ripe cantaloupe, Anansi the Spider squeezes in and eats so much of the melon's flesh that he's too fat to get out. Never one to pass up an opportunity to make mischief, Anansi passes the time calling out insults to Elephant, Hippo, Warthog, and even the "King,'' all of whom think the melon can talk.

Go Away, Big Green Monster! (Little, Brown, 1993; $12.95; preK-1), by Ed Emberley, is a picture-book gem that all ages will adore. As children turn each die-cut page, they uncover a monster with two big yellow eyes, a long blue nose, sharp white teeth, two little squiggly ears, scraggly purple hair, and a big scary green face. Then they command it to go away, one feature at a time. The book elicits and then calms the fears of young readers and intrigues older ones with its clever design.

The delicate and detailed collage watercolors of The Paper Princess (Dutton, $14.99; preK-2), by Elisa Kleven, match the soft, sweet tone of this endearing fantasy. Before a little girl has a chance to give her hand-drawn paper princess doll any hair, the wind sends the picture flying over a meadow, around a Ferris wheel, and into the beak of a blue jay, who provides both hair and a trip home.

To the Top of the World: Adventures With Arctic Wolves (Walker, $16.95; 4-8), by Jim Brandenberg, is an account of the two months the author spent with seven adult wolves and six pups on Ellesmere Island in Canada's Northwest Territories, where he was on assignment for National Geographic. Readers will admire Brandenberg's glowing photographs of the wolves, which, over the course of the summer, grew to accept his presence in their lives.

Children will pore over every detail of the charmingly cluttered paintings of My New York (Little, Brown, $15.95; K-6), by Kathy Jakobsen. Written as a letter from New Yorker Becky to Martin from the Midwest, this book takes us on a cheerful tour of the Big Apple, from Central Park to South Street Seaport; there's even a foldout page of the panoramic view from the top of the Empire State Building.

In Jane Leslie Conly's Crazy Lady! (Harper Collins, $12.89; 5-8), Vernon, the central character, looks back on 7th grade--the year after his mother died--and tells how getting to know an alcoholic named Maxine and her retarded son, Ronald, transformed his life. Omit the infrequent swear words if you must, but don't miss this powerful story of outcasts, recounted, in an unsentimental style, from the perspective of the troubled boy. Vernon comes to accept his mother's death, seeks academic help from a former teacher, and manages to sidestep his friends' bad influences to take control of his life.

In Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying (Random House, $9.99; 1-4), Barbara Park's latest easy-to-read chapter book, the irrepressible title character is dumbfounded when she witnesses her kindergarten teacher sampling grapes at the grocery store without paying for them. The hilarious and beguiling monologue of the loquacious narrator makes a great starting point for encouraging students to incorporate real-life dialogue in their own writing.

It's not easy to own up when we do something wrong, as Mexican-American writer Gary Soto makes clear in his wonderful picture book Too Many Tamales (Putnam, $14.95; K-3), illustrated with large attractive oil paintings, by Ed Martinez. Left alone in the kitchen, Maria slips on her mother's diamond ring as she kneads the sticky masa for Christmas tamales. Later, when she realizes the ring is missing, Maria enlists her visiting cousins to eat the huge batch of tamales hoping to find it.

Karen Hesse's Sable (Henry Holt, $14.95; 3-5) is a heart-tugging tale of loss, love, and determination, illustrated by Marcia Sewall. Narrator Tate has us rooting for her as she desperately tries to train Sable, the gentle but theft-prone stray dog she has adopted. Her parents, tired of Sable's mischief-making ways, give the dog away.

Marion Dane Bauer explores themes of abandonment, responsibility, and forgiveness in A Question of Trust (Scholastic, $13.95; 4-7), a penetrating novel about 12-year-old Brad and his younger brother, Charlie, who are hit hard when their mother moves out. Secretly caring for a cat and her two kittens in the toolshed gives the boys a sense of purpose. But when they discover one kitten dead and half-eaten, the boys, assuming the mother has killed it, drive her off and struggle to care for the remaining kitten themselves.

At the beginning of Barry Moser's Tucker Pfeffercorn: An Old Story Retold (Little, Brown, $16.95; 3-8), a group of miners are swapping tales at Sweatt's Company Store. An old geezer tells the group about a young widow named Bessie Grace Kinzalow who can spin cotton into gold. Overhearing him, the greedy mine owner Hezakiah Sweatt locks Bessie in a room until she works her magic. Like the fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin,'' upon which this haunting and handsomely illustrated picture book is based, a peculiar little man comes to the rescue. But he demands that Bessie give him her young daughter as payment, unless, of course, she can guess his name.

Four outstanding contemplative novels for young adults were also published this year. Better suited for discussion than reading aloud, these books are all narrated by self-willed and resourceful young women who set out to improve their lives while dealing with complicated issues of love, marriage, and children. Set in an English manor house in the year 1290, Catherine, Called Birdy (Clarion, $13.95; 6-10), by Karen Cushman, is a spirited and entertaining account of the title character's rebellious 14th year, the year she was betrothed to a much older man she derisively calls Shaggy Beard. A gritty prose-poem, Make Lemonade (Henry Holt, $15.95; 6-10), by Virginia Euwer Wolff, tells the story of LaVaughn, who spends her 14th year babysitting for 17-year-old Jolly's two children and trying to help the young mother cope with poverty and her overwhelming responsibilities. In Julie Johnston's Adam and Eve and Pinch-Me (Little, Brown, $14.95; 6-10), 15-year-old foster child Sara Moone, sent to live on a farm with a family named Huddleston, uses an old computer to record her thoughts and delete people out of her life. The quirkiest of the quartet is Patrice Kindl's Owl in Love (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95; 6-9), in which a 14-year-old half-owl, half-human "shapeshifter'' named Owl Tycho falls in love with her science teacher, Mr. Lindstrom.

Finally, there is Kathleen Krull's Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and What the Neighbors Thought) (Harcourt Brace, $18.95; 4-10), a chronological compendium of 20 brief but eye-opening biographies, each one accompanied by a winning, full-page watercolor caricature by Kathryn Hewitt. Included here are the eccentricities, hopes, sufferings, and successes of such well-known wordsmiths as William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Hans Christian Andersen, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Jack London, Langston Hughes, among others. A few hours with this volume may just lead the uninitiated young reader to another whole genre of books: the classics.

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